Interrogations by Donald Weber, 2011

As stated in his web, this project is the result of a first exploratory trip to Chernobyl in 2005. Donald Weber soon returned to the abandoned site of the nuclear disaster and spent the next six years in Russia and Ukraine photographing the ruins of the unstoppable storm we call history. Traveling and living with ordinary people who had survived much, had survived everything, he began to see the modern State as a primitive and bloody sacrificial rite of unnamed Power.

Set in Ukraine, the book Interrogations arranges a series of portraits of people being questioned in different interrogation rooms. The book doesn’t include any captions and very little information about the contexts: we are not told who these people are, what they are accused of, or why they are being interrogated.  Each photograph shows different people undergoing a psychologically and sometimes physically violent interrogation process. The chosen location, sparse interrogation rooms, emphasizes the disturbance generated by the pictures.  The book indirectly reveals that these photographs were not staged and were taken during real interrogations. As one portrait follows the next, the emotions intensify.

In Weber’s words, “the unseen subject of these photographs is Power”. He also stated, “the idea of the book was that this was to be like a police dossier, a set of files, without being literal. That is why we ended up with the razor-like edge of the book and put in a slipcase, in a subtle way, it resembles a dossier without sending a red flag up.” 

The book caused a stir in photography circles when they first appeared due to the implicit violence and the photographer’s ethics. In a short interview, this is how Weber referred to the process and its reception:

“As you know, I’ve spent almost six years living and working in this area. On my very first trip I met a police detective with whom I got along with. Over time, we developed a bond and a trust. Every trip I would bring him photographs and was always very upfront with my work, who I was and what I was doing. Never hiding the results, however critical they may be of him and the methods the police employ.”

“About five years ago I witnessed my first interrogation, and was utterly shocked at its violence, not just physically but mentally as well. Solzhenitsyn talks for almost a third of his book The Gulag Archipelago about the nature of interrogation, and the importance of the interrogation not just through Soviet history, but universally. He would think everyday about the moment of his interrogation how he was broken, and everyday about the moment of his execution. So, the seed for this story was planted.”

“For obvious reasons I could not just ask to photograph inside an interrogation. As my work progressed, so did my police contact, who rose over time to the rank of Major. He had gained a position of authority to grant permission. Since we had spent so many years together photographing, he was aware of my methods and how I worked. We rarely spoke to each other, during work or after hours. I felt it best to maintain as much distance as possible but still respectful of his role. When he finally granted permission he still made me work for the access to the actual accused.”

“I sat almost everyday for four months on a bench in a hallway of the police station waiting with the people who were to be interrogated. The first month, not  a single frame was photographed. Each day I would show up 9am, and leave approximately 12 hours later. Most days were spent with nothing to photograph, many of the accused were not interested in having there photo taken. On average, I was lucky to photograph maybe two people a week over a four month period.”

“This was not simply a case of walking in saying hello as a privileged Westerner and flashing my camera around. This was a project five years in the making. So before anybody rushes to quick judgement, I felt the facts as to how the work was created should be shared.”

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